The issue of stocked brook trout

Just as a point of clarification for this blog, and a general statement on my opinions about brook trout, I’m trying to locate WILD unicorn brook trout for the purposes of this site. In my opinion, stocked brook trout are far inferior to their wild counterparts. Generally, stocked fish are much larger, but they lack most of the characteristics of the wild fish. To me, personally, it means nothing to catch a large stocked brook trout.

Huge Stocked Brook Trout

Case in point is the above brook trout. This fish was caught in Maryland. It actually creates a bit of a conundrum for me. In general, it’s appearance lends itself to being a stocked fish. That said, it also carries some wild fish traits. It has all of it’s fins, and they’re all in perfect shape. While hard to see in the photo, it does have decent halo spotting and a fair amount of them. The issues I see, and why I believe this is a stocked fish are 3 fold. A.) it came from a river (big river) that is generally stocked heavily by MD and WV and to my knowledge, there is no natural reproduction of brook trout. B.) it has very dull spotting which is generally a sign of stocked fish. C.) it has the tell tale shortened operculum (where you can see it’s gills).

The above fish is technically my personal best “brook trout”, however, to me it doesn’t count. It’s an 18″ fish, which is great, but just look at it! A face only a mother could love. At least it came from a catch and release, fly fishing only section of a river. The river also maintains a cold water temperature (57F today at the end of a very hot July) year round. So it’s an appropriate place to put brook trout. I personally wish the only fish they stocked in that river were brook trout.

In my experience, for whatever reason, stocked brook trout tend to have a shortened, mutated operculum. I’m not entirely sure what causes this, but I’ve seen it in a lot of stocked brook trout.

Stocked PA brook trout

It is less pronounced, but the above fish also has a shortened operculum. You can’t quite see the fish’s gills, but it is 100% shorter than on wild fish. There is usually a two parts to the operculum on brook trout. The plate itself is generally a hard, bone like structure, followed further back toward the tail of the fish by a thinner, flexible membrane (subopercle) that seals tight against the pectoral support and operculum bone. On stocked brook trout, that subopercle seems to be missing and the operculum itself is shortened.

To me, there are many, many issues with stocked brook trout. Firstly, they compete with the wild fish for habitat and forage. Second, they can cause failed spawning with wild fish (due to infertility, inexperience or other factors) which wastes the energy and spawning opportunity of wild fish. Thirdly, if successful at spawning with wild fish, the gene pool is diluted or compromised by the introduction of inferior hatchery fish. Fourthly, the stocked fish can carry disease (gill lice is an isssue in PA) and are generally unable to ward off disease that wild fish have built up a defense for (genetic immunity). Fifthly, they look horrible. Sixthly, they fight like crap. Seventhly, they don’t survive. Etc., Etc., Etc.

Ugly stocked brook trout

It’s interesting to me, that the state’s idea of preserving brook trout fisheries includes stocking brook trout. I guess they think that helps prevent the introduction of invasive species (brown and rainbow trout). I don’t see how the above listed issues are an appropriate trade off however.

The only silver lining in all of this, however, is that the state has just (unofficially as of 2019) decided to stop stocking brook trout. Because this isn’t public yet, we’re not sure what the reason for the cessation of stocking is. I’ve read that it’s due to the gill lice issue, but I suspect (my opinion only) that it’s a financial issue. Brook trout are much more costly to raise for a number of reasons. They generally don’t grow very fast for starters.

This presents an interesting thought exercise. There are several streams locally to me that are only stocked with brook trout (supposedly). These streams generally have a small population of wild brook trout and are generally infertile. Infertile in the sense that they don’t have a great food base, are generally more acidic and have poor buffering capability.

These streams will henceforth (supposedly) be limited to the existing populations of reproducing fish. Some of these streams are fished very heavily. I suspect there is going to be a lot of blowback by the bait fishing community on this. Whether these folks continue fishing once the streams become 100% wild is not likely. The big question to me is whether the state will cave and start stocking rainbows and browns over the wild populations of brook trout.

Back on the subject of unicorn brook trout and stocked fish. To me, it means nothing if the fish reached the size when caught due to pellets. I’m more open to accepting a large fish that was either, stocked as a fingerling and grew large on it’s own, or fish that were stocked at catchable size (12 inches) and grow to enormous proportions. I plan to start fishing a large lake that gets stocked with fingerling brook trout by the state and larger fish by a local club. A 4 lb brook trout from that lake would be acceptable to me, though it would still be in a class of it’s own and slightly less desirable.

In my opinion, the only brook trout in PA should be wild, naturally occuring fish. There’s really no benefit to stocking brook trout. In the streams with weak natural reproduction of brook trout, that’s what they are, and what they should be. Small, infertile streams with a few wild fish. There’s nothing wrong with that! I don’t know why people think that they have to enhance a poor stream with stocked fish. It’s an artificial fishery.

Regardless, it looks like in about 4 years, there will be no risk of catching stocked brook trout in Pennsylvania. Supposedly, the club/co-op hatcheries are supposed to stop raising/stocking brook trout as well. This is great news as far as I’m concerned.

In addition to eliminating the issues I outlined above in regard to the negative effects of stocking brook trout, I also look forward to less angler pressure in the future. Those small infertile streams won’t produce enough legal sized fish to hold many harvest angler’s interest. The less harvest, and angling pressure, the greater chance that unicorns could exist in some of these remote places.

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